Sunday, August 22, 2010

Get with the program (and off "Auto")

For a few hours, Woot.com offered the Samsung HZ30W camera today for $129.99. It sold out fairly quickly.

But I read with interest the comments left by Wooters trying to decide whether to buy the camera. About half pointed to online comments from previous buyers, many of whom complained that the camera's images were too noisy.

I'd guess those users probably did the following:
  • They charged the battery and added a memory card.
  • They turned the camera on.
  • They shot their photos on Auto, and got poor results.
"Auto" is the default mode on many cameras. The camera makes all the decisions: shutter speed, aperture, flash, and ISO (or sensitivity to light). More often than not, cameras left in Auto mode select a higher ISO (200 or 400) so the flash reaches further.

The higher the ISO, the more likely their will be digital noise in your photos.

The way around this? Learn how to use the camera's "Program" mode. It's similar to Auto, but it should allow you to lock the ISO at a lower ISO 100 or 200, where you'll have less incidence of noise. You may need to take a step or two closer to your subject so you get more detail, but the exercise won't kill you.

By the way, I have the Samsung HZ35W -- nearly identical to the HZ30W, but with a better viewing screen. The daylight images are really quite nice. There's some noise in the shadow areas, but nothing objectionable. I need to play with it some more.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Layers of sunset: how I made this photo


This photo had little to do with the model of camera I used, or the lens, or anything very technical.

It had everything to do with the calendar and the weather forecast.

November, 2009 saw a small hurricane called Ida wander across the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricanes leave a trail of clouds. A quick consultation of a good calendar told me when the sunset would take place. A few minutes with the Weather Channel told me where the worst of the storm had gone.

All I needed was a camera and a wristwatch. And a boardwalk to shoot from.

The camera was a Canon Powershot A630, one of the great underrated Canons that uses AA batteries and lets you manually adjust shutter speed, aperture, and other settings. The current A-series Canons don't offer this level of control. (The camera itself is no longer made, but used models may be found at online auction, or maybe www.KEH.com.)

Exposure details: handheld, 1/1000-second exposure at f4.0, with a -0.67 underexposure to deepen the clouds a bit.

Tip: lens flare can be a problem when shooting into the sun, so make plenty of exposures. You may have to edit out lens flares in an editing program.

Monday, August 16, 2010

It's the sensor, not the megapixels

Last week brought thrills galore in my camera collection. One example: I found a name-brand 12-MP digital camera online, with manufacturer's warranty, for $39.99. Even with $5 shipping, it's still a great deal -- especially since I plan to give the camera as a gift later on.

At the other end of the spectrum, I visited Wally World for a few supplies, and wandered past the camera bar, where a salesperson was telling someone why he should by a 12-MP camera instead of a 10-MP camera: "You can make larger 8 x 10 prints with the 12-megapixel camera."

I wanted to interrupt the conversation with:

"When was the last time you printed an 8 x 10 print?"

For many of us, photographic prints are an afterthought. I print only a few photos a year, usually as gifts or to frame and display. When I get a frame-able photo, I have Adorama Pix or KodakGallery do the printing. But most people lean toward 4 x 6-inch prints, if they print at all.

(The discontinued camera above is a 5-MP camera with a 1/1.7 sensor. It delivers more detailed photos than the 12-MP camera below, which has a smaller sensor.)

The only reason to choose the 12-MP camera was IF that model's image sensor was physically larger than that of the 10MP camera. (It wasn't.) A larger sensor generally will give better image quality, because the pixels aren't as tightly packed. If it helps, think of how you got better photos from your 35mm negatives than you got from your old 110 pocket film negs.)

If the sensors are the same size, all the consumer will get are larger image files, which mainly clutter your hard drive.

Camera manufacturers: please do your consumers a favor. Tell us the sensor size on the box, before you get snarled up in megapixels. Larger sensors = more detailed photos, and even better photos in poor lighting conditions.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sounding off on video


Pocket video camera in your future? They've become as popular as most "standard" digital cameras, mostly because of their form-factor.

Most pocket video cameras often do less than a digital still camera that shoots HD video. The video cameras usually don't have a zooming lens; almost all digital point-and-shoots have an optical zoom lens. Point-and-shoots offer scene modes for nighttime, portraits, etc., while videocams have only a couple of options: stills or different size videos. And I haven't seen a pocket video camera with a flash or fill-in light, which would help improve still photography.

But for all the video choices, I don't understand why so few offer a key feature: dual microphones. Video without audio isn't terrible, but video with poor audio is almost intolerable. Canon and Kodak make cameras with two microphones; the Kodak V1253 pictured above does a pretty decent job, captures HD video, and has a fairly nice feature set in a svelt form factor, including a 3-inch LCD, Schneider lens, and about two-dozen modes for still photos.

One problem: the V1253 is no longer in production. Need to hunt for it in online auctions, or look at somewhat bulkier Canons with twin mikes.

The big-name camera makes, Nikon and Canon, now offer digital SLRs that capture HD video, too. The results are gorgeous, and some allow you to add an external mike, like Kodak's Zi8 pocket video camera. But they are not inexpensive.

For my money, a point-and-shoot that grabs video is far more useful than a camera that emphasizes video first.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What whine goes with your camera?

Every time I read of someone's disappointments with their new digital camera, the whines fall into three categories:
  • The batteries don't last long at all.
  • The camera manual is inadequate.
  • I can't see the LCD in bright sunlight.
Quick answers:

Batteries: alkaline batteries weren't ever intended to run a high-drain device such as a mini-computer with an always-on LCD (which is what a camera is). Buy some name-brand rechargeables. I use Duracells, and I've heard good things about Sanyo Eneloop AAs. To avoid frustrating yourself, buy a charger that doesn't require 8 hours to charge your batteries. As for the lithium-ion batteries that come with most cameras: they need to be charged first, then completely drained, then recharged before you get optimal performance.

Manuals: Funny, hardly anyone read these things when they came with film cameras. Learn how to download the full PDF version from the CD that came with your camera, or the manufacturer's website. Print out ONLY the pages with essential information, then photograph them in "Text" or "Document" mode so they're in your camera's SD or fixed memory. Problem solved.

LCDs in bright sun are always hard to see. Buy a pop-up shade that's the same width as the LCD on your camera. Delkin makes pretty good shades, and the shade part can be unclipped from the camera when you don't need it. (Note: you can't use Delkin shades on a camera with a touch screen LCD. I've tried.)

Okay? Any other whines, please leave a comment below. Thanks.